Kareem Abdul Jabar is someone you expect to see on a basketball court, not on the TED stage. He’s introduced with a montage of his basketball career, pointing out that he was so dominating that the NCAA had to ban the dunk while he played in college. KAJ starts by addressing the basketball questions he always gets asked. “How tall am I? Seven foot two. When I bend over to pick up my socks, I wonder what else I can accomplish while I was down there.” He’s got good laugh lines: “I was such a big baby my birthday was April 15 and 16th.”
Whoever asks the questions, he tells us, is in control of the conversation. The questions he wants to ask are about roots and foundations. He tells us that he was privleged to grow up in Harlem during the civil rights movement. The sense he had was that if African Americans stood together, a powerful community could emerge through the power of teamwork, harmony and words.
KAJ turned 60 this year, he tells us – he looks like he’s in his late forties. “At this age, you go to bed perfectly healthy and wake up injured.” As he reflects on his life, he’s interested in the lessons of his predecesors, the architects of the Harlem Renaissance. He’s published a book on the topic, visiting the historic places of Harlem and telling the stories of the black community in the 1920s – 1940s. He points out that the Harlem Rens, an all black basketball team, weren’t given the opportunity to join the ABA because of their color.
By the time KAJ was entering basketball, he was able to win a scholarship to a catholic school and work his way through to UCLA. Along the way, he learned to focus on his strengths – “you can do anything, but you can’t do everything”. As a slim player, a power game wasn’t going to work – he tried to learn from Bill Russel how to play a speed and finesse game. And his coaches taught him that teamwork was more important than individual play – if you pass long enough, someone will be open. Using this principal, the UCLA freshman team beat the varsity his first season – “they were the top ranked team in the nation, but the second ranked team on campus.”
It’s clear that Kareem has given this talk many times, often to corporate audiences – he’s got principles for success that focus on integrity, execution and teamwork. But it’s also clear that he’s got deep roots in his fascination with and understanding of African-American history in the US and that his inspirations are the great jazz musicians – Coltrane, Duke, and men like his father, who mastered their instruments before contributing to a whole orchestra. He’s got little sympathy for pop culture that celebrates mediocrity: “Get rich or die trying is something that has to stop – you have to become a landowner, and take care of each other living in a supportive system.”
One of Kareem’s opening analogies is to bamboo, which grows deep before it grows tall. He tells us that he wants to be seven feet deep, not just seven feet tall. The range of his interests suggests that he may well be.